Home Entertainment Review: Superman: Unbound (Warner)

June 14th cannot get here fast enough. MAN OF STEEL is poised to be the Superman movie I’ve waited my entire life for. In the interim, however, Superman fans can delve into […]

 photo 1000305172BRDLEFO.jpg

June 14th cannot get here fast enough. MAN OF STEEL is poised to be the Superman movie I’ve waited my entire life for. In the interim, however, Superman fans can delve into Warner Brothers’ newest feature: SUPERMAN UNBOUND.

Aside from the MAN OF STEEL hype-machine fueling my interest in this movie, I’m always curious to see how WB/DC Comics makes the Superman animated features accessible to kids and adults alike, especially since I’ve two of my own little girls now. I figured at the very least this would be an easier sell to kids than All-Star Superman’s “So, in this film, Superman has cancer” (I’m not hating on All-Star Supes – I love that series and the animated feature, just some heavy material there for the younger crowd).

SUPERMAN UNBOUND is adapted from the Superman story-arc “Brainiac” by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. For those unfamiliar with Brainiac, this film fills in any gaps you may have up front. Even the opening montage is the birth of the villain himself (with a slightly graphic moment where a robot tentacle rips out Brainiac’s eye as it “builds” him into his current iteration) as a world-destroying juggernaut, who, in his own estimation, has the “knowledge and strength of 10,000 worlds.”

When a Brainiac drone comes to Metropolis, Superman quickly makes with the fists (more on that later) and takes the robotic remains back to his Antarctic Fortress of Solitude. When Supergirl makes a visit to the Fortress, it’s revealed that she’s seen these things in action before on Krypton. See – Brainiac has a penchant for finding a large city, bottling it, shrinking it down, storing it on his ship, and then blowing up that world’s sun, triggering mass extinction for the rest of the planet. With task in hand (stop Brainiac from stealing Metropolis/blowing up earth), Superman tangles with Brainiac both in space and, finally, on earth.

Did I love it? No. It definitely falls short of my expectations, but did I hate it? Not really. This is one of those animated movies that I think I would have loved as a boy. Superman punches things – a lot of things. Power fantasy – Check. He also has a cliché, but classically defined back and forth with his girlfriend, Lois Lane (“I’m just trying to protect you” v. “I don’t need protecting.”), setting himself up as the ultimate protector/romantic. Superhero romance fantasy – Check. Supergirl also calls Brainiac a “bully” early on, setting a distinct context for a younger audience. Standing up to the big, bad bully fantasy – Check. Superman even steals a line from INDEPENDENCE DAY (Will Smith’s incomparable “Welcome to earth.”), fulfilling the need for a quotable climactic moment. And it all builds toward a happy ending with a bit of foreshadowing for future conflicts. Really, it’s easy to see why this will appeal to the younger audience. Plus, did I mention he punches things? Like – HARD.

As an adult, though, I was left wanting. At one point Brainiac looks at Superman and says, “You are nothing but fists.” That pretty accurately sums up how I felt about a lot of this movie. This version of Johns’ story seems muted when it comes to the emotional pitches I remember resonating with me as I read the comics. So what’s missing? Well, in part, what’s missing is the tragedy of the original series (Commence spoilers). It’s tragic that Kal-El’s home planet was destroyed. That the only time he’s close to a piece of it – it could kill him (i.e., Kryptonite). So, when he not only discovers that Kandor, a populated Kryptonian city, is alive and well amid Brainiac’s bottled city collection, but also gets teleported inside – there should be a moment of cognitive dissonance. I want that momentary mental wrestling match between “Oh, no – I’m stuck here in this bottled city” and “Great Rao, this is my opportunity to see the home world I was never privy to – to spend time in the place of my birth among its people.” It’s there, but it’s slight.

Also missing in the animated feature is the death of Pa Kent. Actually Pa Kent is missing entirely from this version, which is unfortunate because, there are some nice moments between adoptive father and son, leading up to his death. So, wait – did I need Jonathan Kent to die to enjoy this film? I don’t know. I think structurally, I’m a fan of how Johns builds in the highs and lows. Sure, he’s elated that he’s rescued a piece of the world his father rocketed him away from, but it ultimately costs him his adoptive father.

On a side note: My wife accuses me of making my high school students read novels and plays that are exclusively tragic. It’s hard to argue that to some extent. Take one of my favorites, THE GREAT GATSBY, for example. Sure Gatsby learns that he can’t reclaim the past – that he should move forward and start living for himself not for some hollow, vapid blonde from his past – but then he’s promptly shot and killed in his swimming pool (Okay, that probably oversimplifies way too much of the story, but the point is there’s a bit of good mixed in with the tragedy, which makes it all the more resonant). So, is it my need that all my superhero books/movies be tragic? Not necessarily. But I wanted to connect with this film in the same way as I did the comics, and I couldn’t.

It’s not all bad, though. Brainiac as a villain is intriguing – his mission, his view of others’ lives, including Superman’s, and even his ultimate undoing (which remains intact from the source material AND involves more than just punching) sets him apart from every other baddie in Superman’s rogues’ gallery.

To be honest, part of the fun in getting a first look at this film was the trying to answer the question “Why would DC put out a Brainiac-centric Superman film before Man of Steel opens this summer? Are they priming us for a big screen appearance?” If I had the answer to either of those questions, my guess is there’d be gag orders in place stopping me from sharing it with you. Total speculation, but I’d like to think that we’ll see some mention of Brainiac – perhaps on the war-torn Krypton Jor-El seems to look out over at the beginning of the third MAN OF STEEL trailer that’s been released. But again – it’s all guess work and fantasy on my part (I’d kill to see Luthor/Brainiac as the core villains in a sequel).

Bottom line: If you’re a kid looking for a Superman fix before MAN OF STEEL hits theaters, this is a bit of fried gold. For all others who love the source material, this is a mixed bag that will leave you double-checking your calendars, wishfully glancing ahead at June 14th.

Produced by Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation, SUPERMAN: UNBOUND film arrives May 7, 2013 from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment as a Blu-ray™ Combo Pack, DVD, On Demand and for Digital Download.

About Staff Writer